Walking: By foot or by the glass on the other side of the world

When Captain Cook arrived at Ship Cove in New Zealand in 1770, he enjoyed a well- earned rest. When Kathy Marks arrived, it was to embark on a 45-mile hike

Ship Cove is not much to look at: just a narrow, pebbly beach with a ragged fringe of vegetation that grows down to within a few feet of the water's edge. It has a small jetty and, on the foreshore, a rectangle of grass with an obelisk commemorating the first white man to land there, Captain James Cook.

Ship Cove is not much to look at: just a narrow, pebbly beach with a ragged fringe of vegetation that grows down to within a few feet of the water's edge. It has a small jetty and, on the foreshore, a rectangle of grass with an obelisk commemorating the first white man to land there, Captain James Cook.

There are, as every contemporary traveller knows, countless sites around the globe with monuments to the great explorer, but this secluded inlet in New Zealand's Marlborough Sounds is special. Rugged and isolated, still accessible only by sea, it is one of the few spots to have remained virtually untouched since Cook stepped ashore more than two centuries ago.

Arriving by boat, as Cook did, you get an inkling of why he spent 23 days there after being blown in by a gale while voyaging around the north- eastern tip of the South Island in January 1770, and why he returned during four subsequent trips to the Pacific.

There is an austere beauty to Ship Cove, and a sense of time suspended. For Cook and his exhausted, scurvy-ridden crew, it was a haven, a sheltered bay where they could gather timber to repair their battered vessel, the Endeavour, and draw fresh water from a nearby creek. For modern visitors, it is a place to fill one's lungs and marvel at the scenery before embarking on the Queen Charlotte Walkway, the 45-mile coastal path that begins there.

The track, which traverses a hilly, bush-covered finger of land that separates Queen Charlotte and Kenepuru Sounds, is one of New Zealand's lesser-known attractions. In contrast to the more famous walking trails, such as the Milford Track and the Abel Tasman, it is relatively uncrowded, but offers views to equal those of the so-called Great Walks.

Many locals know the Sounds, a maze of waterways formed when the sea invaded river valleys after the last Ice Age, only from the perspective of a boat. They look great from the water, but even better from dry land. An ever-changing vista of bays, coves and islands unfolds before you as you zigzag along skyline ridges during the four-day trek from Ship Cove to Anakiwa, a hamlet at the foot of the peninsula.

The track, based on old bridle- paths, can be walked independently, or you can join a guided group, as I did, and have your luggage transported by water-taxi. My companions included a North Island publican, two expat Geordies and a raucous gaggle of semi-retired Australians and New Zealanders who set a cracking pace on the trail by day and in the bar by night.

Our guide was Steve, who, until a few weeks ago - surreal though it seems - was a sub-foreman in the boning room of a sheep abattoir in Blenheim, Marlborough's market town. He and his girlfriend Juliette and a friend called Hamish clubbed together to buy a local tour company.

"I've seen plenty of sheep without their clothes on," said Steve, with only the faintest flicker of a smile. With a wave at the scenic splendours around us he added, "this is much more fun."

One of the highlights of the walk comes right at the start, when the path climbs steeply away from Ship Cove and cuts through a dense tangle of native bush. Further on, logging and farming have taken their toll, but here the ancient forest is practically intact; towering above the canopy are groves of beech, matai and rimu, draped in creepers that brush your face as you pass. Lower down grow silver ferns - emblem of the All Blacks rugby team - as well as generous supplies of rangiora, nicknamed bushman's toilet paper because of its large, soft leaves.

An hour later, you emerge from the forest at a look-out with sweeping views over the two Sounds. In front are the shimmering waters of the Bay of Resolution; behind is Motuara Island, where Cook raised the Union flag, claiming sovereignty over the mainland on behalf of King George III. In the distance is Kapiti Island, home of the formidable 19th- century Maori warrior Te Rauperaha, chief of the Ngatitoa tribe.

Archaeological evidence suggests that the Maoris settled in the Sounds 800 years before Europeans arrived. Their name for Queen Charlotte Sound was Totararu, which means "big totara" (a native tree) - a reference to the waterway's many branches. The Maoris built fortified villages to fend off raiding parties from the North Island and hunted the 12ft-tall moa bird. The moa became extinct long ago, but there is still plenty of native birdlife in the Sounds, including the mellifluously voiced bell-bird and a species of owl known as morepork - its plaintive call sounds like a request for just that. Most entertaining is the flightless weka, an inquisitive and omnivorous woodhen that loiters near picnic sites, waiting to relieve hikers of muesli bars and ham sandwiches.

If the morepork really did want more pork, it would not go hungry. Descendants of pigs let ashore by Cook two centuries ago roam the Sounds, damaging the woodland and delicate flora. The hush of the forest is sporadically disturbed by the crackle of gunfire from pig-hunters. Another introduced pest is the possum, which feasts on fiveleaf, a flowering plant, sucking the sweet juice from its stem and nibbling the leaves. The forest floor is littered with discarded specimens.

You can camp on the Queen Charlotte Walkway; there are also country lodges situated at intervals along the route, offering varying degrees of comfort and sustenance. Least welcoming was Furneaux Lodge, our first watering-hole, where dinner was barely edible and the management looked on, dourly unamused, as the older and more high-spirited members of the group performed a limbo-dancing competition under a table in the bar. Possums fighting on the roofs of the chalets made for an interrupted night's sleep.

Far better is the Punga Cove Resort, which has a locally acclaimed restaurant and an eccentric outdoor Jacuzzi that was still foaming merrily in the darkness when we went to bed. The Portage Hotel, the third stop, located on a low saddle between the two Sounds, is something of an institution; at one time, it ran the local post office and telephone exchange. The Maoris of old used to haul their canoes over the saddle to save themselves a long journey around the coast.

The Queen Charlotte trail is not a walk for dilettantes. The first two days are not particularly strenuous, but the third involves a 16-mile trek with numerous vertiginous climbs and descents. At the end, we could do little more than collapse into a chair, nursing our bruised and blistered feet. The fourth day was almost as long, but the pain was offset by the sense of achievement at completing the course, and by a slug of Bundaberg rum from the hip-flask of Ian, a Scots-born New Zealander.

Marlborough has two other claims to fame. It is the home of the green- lipped mussel, which is cultivated in the quiet inlets of the Sounds, and it is the country's biggest grape-growing region, particularly renowned for its sauvignon blanc wines. Having survived the walk along the Queen Charlotte track, you more than deserve to indulge yourself with these two local delicacies.

Getting there

To get to Marlborough, fly to Wellington in the North Island and then take another short flight to Blenheim or a ferry across the Cook Strait to Picton.

Further information

The two principal companies offering guided walks along the Queen Charlotte Walkway are Action in Marlborough (tel: 643 578 4531) and the Marlborough Sounds Adventure Company (tel: 643 573 6078). The former also offers white- water rafting trips in the area; the latter offers sea kayaking trips in the Sounds.

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